OUTDOOR BASICS

Tips for Hiking in the Winter: How to Stay Safe and Enjoy your Hike

Two hikers in winter mountains
Daniel Carraway
Written by Daniel Carraway

If you are a true hardcore hiker, no weather condition can stop you from doing what you love. Hiking is really quite fun, and you should not have to give it up just because it’s cold outside. In fact, hiking in the winter has its own charm. The cold breeze on your face, with clouds in the sky and fog all around you, can be quite magical.

However, you need to keep yourself safe from the cold weather so you do not get hypothermia. Hiking is fun only as long as you are comfortable while doing it. If you get sick or feel chilled to the bone, you won’t get to relish your experience. That is why we have come up with some great tips for hiking in the winter season. This way, you will remain warm and relaxed while you go about your day.

Man hiking on winter trip

Without any further ado, let’s start with the list of things you need to keep in mind before you set about your hiking trip.

Plan Ahead of Time

You should always plan your hiking trips ahead of time, but this is especially important in winter. Check the weather forecast to see if the conditions are favorable enough for you to travel. Look if it will be raining or snowing during that time, as you need to pack accordingly.

It is better if you travel with someone. Make sure people know where you are going so that they know where to find you in case of an emergency. Always carry spare batteries for your phone, and ask about the phone reception in the region where you will be hiking.

Your Clothes are Extremely Important

When hiking in winters, there is nothing quite as important as dressing properly. When choosing your clothes, always go for wearing layers instead of wearing only one thick jacket or coat.

Air gets trapped between the different clothes layers, and therefore remains warm. In this way, your body retains its heat.

Inner Layer

This layer is basically underwear, as it is closest to your skin. Go for a base layer which is thick and also can wick sweat away from your body. For this layer, you should go for synthetic fibers. Natural ones like cotton are not a good idea as cotton, once wet, takes a long time to dry. This means that if you sweat, you will be stuck in wet underclothes for a quite some time, and hence will not be comfortable. You can choose down wool underclothes, but make sure they do not irritate your skin.

Synthetic fibers dry out quickly and remain warm for longer durations. Choose long shorts and an undershirt as the inner layer. If it is too cold, you can also go for a thermal. If you are hiking in freezing temperatures, go for two inner layers.

Winter hiking clothes

Middle Layer

The middle layer is mainly meant to retain your body heat. Fleece and goose down work well as a middle layer. If it will be snowing where you are planning to hike, or it will be very cold, you should also go for a pair of fleece mid-layer pants.

Outer Layer

Your outer layer will protect you against the elements. For hiking, it is best if you invest in a waterproof jacket for your outer layer. This will keep you nice and dry even if it rains or snows. Your outer layer should be such that it can easily be worn and removed, depending on the weather.

Gloves

Wear a pair of thick gloves as fingers tend to get cold quickly. Go for a woolen pair, and remember to pack extra pairs so if your gloves get wet, you can wear the spare ones.

Pair of black winter gloves

Face Mask & Scarf

Keep a breathable face mask with you to cover your face in case of cold weather. This is especially important in case it is snowing. Earlobes and the tip of nose tend to get cold rather fast, and you need to cover these areas to keep them warm. Also get yourself a nice, thick scarf to wind around your neck. You can wrap it in such a way that your chin is also covered by it.

Woman in winter clothes taking photo

Socks and Shoes

Wear a pair of thin socks first, and then go for a thicker pair over these. Choose socks made of some synthetic material, or choose Merino wool ones. Just make sure that your boots do not feel too tight after you have put on the socks, particularly if you are planning to wear two pairs.

For shoes, you should invest in a good pair of winter hiking boots. These boots provide traction while keeping your feet warm and dry. If you are a frequent hiker, invest in a waterproof pair of boots so you can hike even in wet conditions.

Winter hiking shoes and socks

Crampons

These are not technically clothes, but are metal spikes which are attached to your boots. They help in providing traction in snowy terrain. Crampons always seem like a good idea, but the truth is that wearing them is a little complex. If you do not take care, you might end up injuring yourself. It is best to try out crampons on an easy trail first, and practice a little. Once you are confident that you know how to use them, only then take them to a rocky or difficult trail.

Crampons on hiking boots

Eyewear is Essential!

Sunglasses or goggles are a hiking essential, no matter what the weather is like. In snowy terrain, they can help to reduce glare and eye strain. Always choose eyewear with UV protection, so your eyes will be protected against the sun’s harmful radiations.

Winter eyewear

Everything you Need to Sleep Comfortably

Hiking in summers is easier in the sense that you can even sleep in a hammock, and be comfortable through the night. However, to have a good night’s sleep in the winters, you need to have proper gear which will keep you dry and warm.

Tent

It is best if you carry a tent rather than just choosing to sleep in a sleeping bag under the sky. Carrying a tent increases the weight and bulk of your belongings, butin the end, enjoying a warm, comfortable night is worth any extra weight that you may have to carry.

Choose a canvas tent instead of a nylon one, as canvas tents tend to be warmer. You can also light a fire inside a canvas tent with a portable stove, so you can warm up the place without fear of the tent catching fire. Special mountaineering tents are available, which provide a great deal of insulation.

You should pack down the snow before you set your tent, as it will not melt quite as easily with your body heat.

Tent in a winter forest

Sleeping Bag

Sleeping bags come with temperature ratings, which mean the lowest temperature at which you will be comfortable in that particular bag. Always choose a bag which has a temperature rating lower than the lowest temperature you hope to encounter. In this way, you will always be warm.

Winter sleeping bags come with high levels of insulation and warm filling. Water-resistant sleeping bags are also available. Choose a sleeping bag which has a draft collar, draft tube and a hood which can close with drawstrings. All these additional features provide added warmth and will prevent air from escaping the sleeping bag. As a result your body will not lose its heat and you will be comfortable through the night.

Make sure the base layer of your sleeping bag is warm and comfortable. It is best if you get yourself a sleeping pad. If it is very cold, or snowing, you should use two sleeping pads so your body does not loose heat while you are lying down.

Sleeping bag

How Should you Carry your Stuff?

Hiking in the winters requires more stuff than hiking in the summers. You need bulkier clothes, sleeping bag and pads and extras of everything. It might get tough, trying to carry all these things on your back. This is why, if you are hiking on snow terrain, you should get yourself a sled.

Polycarbonate sleds are easy to drag, and are also quite flexible. You can load them with all your materials and then tie everything down with straps or cords so it does not fall off.

Sledge with backpack on snow

Be Careful about your Diet

Dehydration is very common while hiking in snow. You do not always feel thirsty, and may forget to drink sufficient water. Make sure you are carrying enough water to last longer than your trip, as you might not come across a fresh water source during your travel. Aim to drink plenty of water, as it will make you feel fresh and energized.

Carry tea or coffee with you to warm you up each morning before you start your day. Having a hot cup of tea or coffee on a freezing winter day is magical, and it will give you the warmth and energy you need to start your day.

Backpacking food ideas

Have three proper meals each day. You need to pack your food very carefully. Choose items which are easy to prepare while at the same time being nutritious. Always pack protein bars and nuts, as you can munch on them even while you hike. Snacks are very important as hiking in the snow requires a lot of effort and exertion, and snacks will keep you going if it is not time for proper meal yet.

Also go for more calorie-dense foods to keep you feeling full and satisfied for much longer. Watching your weight shouldn’t be important when you’re trying to survive in cold temperatures.

Canned food is also a good idea, as it will not spoil and is also easy to consume. Cooking elaborate meals is not always possible while hiking, particularly when the weather is very cold.

A Medical Kit

Even the most experienced hikers can have medical emergencies. This is why you should always carry medical gear with you. Your medicine box should contain bandages, ointments for cuts and scrapes, pain killers and other over-the-counter medicines.

A medical kit

You should also carry a pair of scissors and some tape, which can be used to secure a bandage but can also come in handy in several other ways. A small heat pack is also a great idea, as they don’t take up a lot of space and can provided some much needed heat for the next 24 hours.

Other Stuff you Should Have

There are other thingsyou should carry with you, if you can manage to fit them in your pack. If you are traveling with a sled, this should prove to be easy.

  • Rope: You can use it to tie your stuff on your sled, and the same rope can be used in case of an emergency.
  • A torch/flashlight: Even if you plan to be safely inside your tent by nightfall, you should still carry a torch just in case.
  • Sunscreen: You must carry sunscreen with you at all costs. Apply it even if it is very cloudy, as you can still get sunburned despite the freezing temperatures.
  • Map and compass: Even if you know exactly where you are going, you should still carry a map with you.
  • Ice pole: An ice pole can help you in places where there is thin ice. If you suspect that the ice might break, you should tap it with your pole before walking over that region.

Flashlight for backpacking

Better Safe than Sorry

Traveling in the snow can be rather dangerous. Therefore, it is important that you take a few safety measures before you go out there. Always make sure that your cell phone is charged and carry extra batteries if needed, or the means to charge your phone battery with. If you are traveling alone, make sure you regularly update someone about your position.

Reaching your destination is very thrilling, and exciting, but it is not worth risking your life. If you encounter bad weather conditions, or find out that your trail is dangerous because of an avalanche or any other calamity, do not hesitate to turn back.

Portable chargers for backpacking

If you are a beginner, choose a small, safe trail first. Build up your stamina, and experience, and then go for a more difficult trail. It is better to go on single-day hiking trips initially, and always make sure you are back before nightfall.

In case you are on a several day trip, always pitch your tent before it is dark. Being out in a cold winter night can be a nightmare. Plan your trip in detail so you know exactly where you will be settling down to sleep each night. This is important because you do not want it to be dark at a time when there is nowhere for you to pitch your tent.

Hiking in the Winters can be Fun – as Long as you are Cautious!

When you go on your hiking trip in the winters, remember your goal is to have fun. You want to enjoy yourself, and for that it is necessary that you keep yourself warm, dry, comfortable, well-fed and well-rested.

Hiking in the snow is more dangerous and exerting and doing so on a warm, sunny day. However, it also has its own charm. Walking around in the great outdoors, with pristine snow all around you and a cold breeze in your face – the experience is something every hiker cherishes. And if you are properly prepared and have followed all the tips we mentioned, there is no reason for you not to have a great time.

Couple hiking on snow

Have you ever gone hiking in the snow? What was your experience like? We would love to hear about your adventures, so let us know in the comments section below!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Carraway
Daniel Carraway

Daniel Carraway joined our team last year. He is a gear freak when it comes to hiking, climbing and camping. He went to REI Outdoor School to meet new people and learn best practices. Don’t even try to argue with him about the latest backpack or ice axe, he tried most of them. Daniel’s dream is to climb Mount Everest.

  • Jamie Howard

    Thank you for this Daniel. I really find all your articles interesting and very helpful. I love that you added in a video about winter backpacking and camping tips and tricks. I have always believed that preparation is the key to a successful adventure. Kudos to you and keep up the good work.

  • Josh Barnes

    This is the best guide for those who are planning to do hiking excursions during the winter season. The way you have presented all your tips made it easier for everyone to remember the most important things. I will surely use this when I do my checklist for my next trip.

  • Daniel Carraway

    Glad we could be of service!

  • Daniel Carraway

    Preparation can mean the difference between a good and bad trip! Always be prepared.

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